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Chris Nickson

THE HOCUS GIRL . . . Between the covers

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I redt was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that Britain had anything like an organised police force. The Hocus Girl is set well before that time, and even a developing community like Leeds relied largely on local Constables and The Watch – both institutions being badly paid, unsupported and mostly staffed by elderly individuals who would dodder a mile to avoid any form of trouble or confrontation. There were, however, men known as Thieftakers. The title is self-explanatory. They were men who knew how to handle themselves. They were employed privately, and were outside of the rudimentary criminal justice system.

THG coverSuch a man is Simon Westow. He is paid, cash in hand, to recover stolen goods, by whatever means necessary. His home town of Leeds is changing at an alarming rate as mechanised cloth mills replace the cottage weavers, and send smoke belching into the sky and chemicals into the rivers. We first met Westow in The Hanging Psalm, and there we were also introduced to young woman called Jane. She is a reject, a loner, and she is also prone to what we now call self-harm. She is a girl of the streets, but not in a sexual way; she knows every nook, cranny, and ginnel of the city; as she shrugs herself into her shawl, she can become invisible and anonymous. Her sixth sense for recognising danger and her capacity for violence – usually via a wickedly honed knife – makes her an invaluable ally to Westow. I have spent many enjoyable hours reading the author’s books, and it is my view that Jane is the darkest and most complex character he has created. In many ways The Hocus Girl is all about her.

T redhe 1820s were a time of great domestic upheaval in Britain. The industrial revolution was in its infancy but was already turning society on its head. The establishment was wary of challenge, and when Davey Ashton, a Leeds man with revolutionary ideas is arrested, Simon Westow – a long time friend – comes to his aid. As Ashton languishes in the filthy cell beneath Leeds Moot Hall, Westow discovers that he is treading new ground – political conspiracy and the work of an agent provocateur.

The books of Chris Nickson which are set in the nineteenth century have echoes of Blake contrasting England’s “green and pleasant land ” with the “dark satanic mills”. Yes, scholars will tell us that this is metaphor, and that the Blake’s mills were the churches and chapels of organised religion, but a more literal interpretation works, too. By the time we follow the career of Tom Harper, all the green has turned black, and the pounding of the heavy machinery is a soundtrack which only ceases on high days and holidays. Simon Westow, on the other hand, half a century or more earlier, sees a Leeds where twenty minutes walk will still find you a cottage built of stone that is still golden and unblackened by industrial soot. There are still becks and streams which run clear, uncoloured by cloth dyes and industrial sludge. Just occasionally – very occasionally – there is an old woman still working on her hand loom, determined and defiant in the face of mechanised ‘progress’.

“Up on a ridge, a large steam engine thudded, powering a hoist. A single stone chimney rose, belching out its smoke. No grass anywhere. The land seemed desolate and wasted, people by miners in pale trousers ans waistcoats, blue kerchiefs knotted at the neck. Women and children bent over heaps of coal, breaking up bog black chunks as they sorted them.

This was progress, Simon thought as he watched. It looked more like a vision of hell on earth.”

I red am not sure if Nickson would have been battling with the Luddites as they fought to hold back mechanisation. He is too intelligent a writer to be unaware that the pre-industrial age may have had its golden aspects but life, for the poor man, was still nasty, brutish and short. His anger at the results of ordinary people being sucked into cities such as Leeds to be set to work tending the clattering looms and feeding the furnaces is palpable. Chris Nickson is a political writer of almost religious intensity who, paradoxically, never preaches. He lets his characters have their hour on the stage, and lets us make of it what we will. The Hocus Girl is powerful, persuasive and almost impossible to put down. It is published by Severn House and is available now.

For more on Chris Nickson’s historical novels click the image below.

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THE LEADEN HEART . . . Between the covers

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England, 1899. We are in the city of Leeds and the hottest summer in living memory is taxing the patience of even the most placid citizens. The heavy industry which has transformed the quietly prosperous Yorkshire town continues to clatter and roar, while the smoke from its thousand chimneys coats everything in grime, and the air is thick with soot. Superintendent Tom Harper of the city’s police force has mixed feelings about his recent promotion. The pile of paperwork on his desk adds to the tedium, and he wishes he could be out there on the busy streets doing what he believes to be a copper’s real job.

TLHHarper lives above a city pub, the Victoria. His wife, Annabelle, is the landlady, but she is also a fiercely determined advocate of women’s rights, and she has made waves by being elected to the local Board of Guardians, a largely male-dominated organisation which is tasked with administering what, in the dying years of Queen Victoria’s reign, passed for social care. When the brother of Harper’s one-time colleague, Billy Reed, commits suicide the death is dismissed, albeit sadly, as commonplace, but Reed believes that his brother’s death is due to something more sinister, and he asks Harper to investigate.

Charlie Reed was a small time shop-keeper, but his shop was in an area where large scale commercial developments are being planned, and his premises – along with many others – have been targeted by thugs who are possibly in the pay of two wealthy – but utterly corrupt and ruthless – city councillors. Like a dog with a bone, Harper chews and gnaws away at the shrouds of secrecy with which these men have surrounded themselves, but Charlie Reed’s tragic suicide is eclipsed by a string of savage killings committed by a deranged pair of brothers who are clearly acting at the behest of the two councillors and their lawyer.

Against a background of heartbreaking poverty, where needless deaths and bureaucracy trump common humanity at every turn, Harper eventually gets to come face to face with the killers and their suave masters, but not before his family is put in peril, and his own life comes to hang from a thread.

The most chilling aspect of The Leaden Heart is that it is brutally contemporary. Town and City councillors might, these days, be seen as bumbling and pompous local jobsworths, full of piss and wind, but relatively harmless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now, as in 1899, such people have huge power over planning applications and budgets which are in the millions. Now, as then, the corrupt and venal live among us and will, no doubt, be putting themselves up for re-election in May 2019.

The author’s empathy with the downtrodden and exploited, and his disgust at crooked councillors and unfeeling public guardians burns like an angry flame. The most haunting image in the book is of two drowned children killed, yes, by their drunken father, but also failed by their helpless mother and the rigid workhouse system. Nickson is a writer, however, whose passionate desire for social justice never impedes his ability to tell a great story and weave a dazzling crime mystery. What is more, he does the job with minimal fuss; there’s never a wasted word, a redundant adjective or an overblown description. His prose is pared down to the bone, but always sharp and vivid. I often think Nickson would have found lasting kinship with the great campaigning journalist and author GR Simms, (incidentally an almost exact contemporary of Tom Harper) whose most celebrated work is echoed in some aspects of The Leaden Heart. The book is published by Severn House and will be out on 29th March.

Regular visitors to Fully Booked will know that I am an unashamed fan of everything Chris Nickson writes. If you click on the image of the man himself, you can read other reviews and features on his work.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2018 . . . (3) Best historical crime

To read the detailed review of GREEKS BEARING GIFTS, just follow the link https://fullybooked2017.com/2018/04/01/greeks-bearing-gifts-between-the-covers/

PRIZE DRAW …Win Chris Nickson’s The Hanging Psalm

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I YIELD TO NO-ONE in my admiration of Chris Nickson and his Leeds historical crime novels, and so it is with a heavy heart that I am launching this competition to win a prize that is so gorgeous, I am tempted to assume an alias and enter the draw myself.

THE HANGING PSALM is a dark and brooding novel set in Georgian Leeds, and is a tale steeped in revenge, murder, astonishing period detail and a certain amount of social anger.

MAY I SUGGEST two small steps? First, click the blue link to read my review of The Hanging Psalm. Then, email me at fullybooked2016@yahoo.com – no need to do any more than put ‘The Hanging Psalm’ in the subject box. Alternatively, if you are a Facebook user, go to the Fully Booked Facebook page and ‘like’ the post about this competition. The image link below will take you straight there.

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PROBABLY EVEN EASIER, if you belong to the Twitterati, is to either like or retweet my daily posts about this competition. Click the little blue bird below to go the Fully Booked Twitter timeline.

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ENTRIES please by 10.00pm GMT on Sunday 30th September. The winner will be drawn from the Fully Booked digital hat, with United Nations observers present to ensure fair play. One entry per person only, please, and I will let the lucky winner know sometime on Monday 1st October.

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THE HANGING PSALM . . . Between the covers

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Honest broker that I am, and the modern equivalent of Robespierre in my sea-green incorruptibility, I must declare an interest here. I am an unashamed and avid fan of anything written by Chris Nickson. I hope that if he did write a duff book – or chapter – or page – or sentence – I would say so. Happily, that dilemma is one that I have yet to face.

hanging-psalm-revisedNickson’s latest book introduces a new character, Simon Westow, who walks familiar streets – those of Leeds – but our man is living in Georgian times. England in 1820 was a kingdom of uncertainty. Poor, mad King George was dead, succeeded by his fat and feckless son, the fourth George. Veterans of the war against Napoleon, like many others in later years, found that their homeland was not a land fit for heroes. The Cato Street conspirators, having failed to assassinate the Cabinet, were executed.

Simon Westow is a thief-taker. These days, he might be a bounty hunter or a PI. There is no established official police force, merely a Constable who is neither use nor ornament.
“The constable. It was a name rather than a job. A position. All the ceremony and the money that went with the post, but none of the work. Cecil Freeman had been part of the council long enough to earn the sop, a nest to gild his retirement. He supervised the watch, old men who covered the different wards of Leeds and hobbled a mile rather than risk a fight.”

Westow is a tradesman, just like a plumber. He is paid by results, and when he is tasked with finding the kidnapped daughter of a prominent mill owner, it poses no major problem and the young woman is soon found and returned to her family. But – and it is a huge ‘but’ – Westow and his ally, a wraith-like and embittered girl of the streets called Jane, learn that there is much more to the kidnapping than meets the eye. Their nemesis is a vengeful and resourceful man called Julius White, who has returned from a seven year transportation sentence to settle scores with those who put him on the prison ship sailing to Australia.

Samuel Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” but Nickson has eyes and ears only for Leeds. I am always drawn to writers who make a vivid sense of place a major character in their novels, hence my fascination with the London of Christopher Fowler, Jim Kelly’s Fenland and the brooding hills of the Welsh Marches as portrayed by Phil Rickman. Nickson, and his Leeds across the generations, is up there with the best. Think of the subtleties of a Rembrandt portrait, every line and wrinkle faithfully reproduced, but also think of that great painter’s warmth and the deep compassion of his vision.

Nickson employs a simple but astonishingly effective plot device, that readers of his novels will recognise. A crime is committed. The perpetrator is either unknown, or a known villain who has gone to ground in the alleys and ginnels of Leeds. The central character, be it Richard Nottingham, Tom Harper, Lottie Armstrong or Dan Armstrong, must then call in favours, walk the streets, mingle with pub low-life or knock on the front doors of posh houses in search of information. This enables Nickson to bring Leeds to life across the centuries, its dark places with poverty so intense that it reeks, and those airy vaulted buildings where men of property and money take their leisure and talk business.

The author is also a highly respected music journalist, and he will be aware that the great Woody Guthrie said something along the lines of, “I only use three chords; maybe four, if I’m trying to impress a girlfriend.” Nickson is equally parsimonious with his prose. There are no flounces, no frills and no flourishes but, maybe because of this economy, there is memorable poetry, albeit bleak, such as when he describes the ‘fallen women’ of Leeds.

“Too many were desperate. All it took was the promise of a meal and a bed. And then enough gin and laudanum to dull the pain of living and the agony men inflicted. If a few died, there was ample room for the burials. Girls without names, without pasts; no one would ever ask questions.”

Westow’s pursuit of Julius White is thrilling stuff. The ex-convict’s desire for revenge has created a fire, and the character forged in its flames emerges as the embodiment of evil. Maybe it’s just me, but this novel casts a more sombre shadow than previous Nickson Leeds novels. Westow certainly carries deep psychological scars from his institutional upbringing, and Jane is a very dark, complex and troubled soul.

The Hanging Psalm is published by Severn House and will be available from 28th September. In case you are puzzled by the price on the Amazon listing, you need to know that the publishers sell mainly to public libraries, so check that your own library has this book on its acquisition list.

If you are new to the books of Chris Nickson, then click the blue link to discover why I am such an admirer.

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THE DEAD ON LEAVE . . . Between the covers

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Leeds, Yorkshire. 1936.
The once thunderous clatter of its mills and factories is now a hesitant stutter. Although the Great Depression is over, like the plague passing over biblical Egypt it has left many victims. Work is scarce, and men live in fear of being unable to put bread on the table for their wives and children. There is state relief, but it is a grudging pittance. When a widely disliked Means Test Inspector – a man paid to snoop around people’s houses rooting out efforts to cheat the system – is found garotted, there are few to mourn him. But murder is murder, and police detective Urban Raven must find the killer.

TDOLIt appears the dead man is a would-be follower of Sir Oswald Mosley, charismatic leader of the British Union of Fascists and, after an appearance in Leeds by Mosley and his Blackshirts turns into a riot, it is tempting for the police to think that the murder is politically inspired. As Raven tries to make sense of the killing, he has his own demons to face. Like many other Yorkshiremen, Raven is a Great War veteran, even though his war was brief and horrific. Only able to see active service in the dog-days of the conflict, he was unlucky enough to be close to a fuel dump which was hit by a stray shell. There’s a line from a song about that war, which goes,

“Never knew there was worse things than dying..”

Those words might be an extreme take on the scars of war, but Urban Raven’s face is a shiny and distorted mass of scar tissue, and he has become adept at ignoring the fascinated horror on people’s faces when they see him for the first time. His disfigurement might do him no favours with ordinary people, but has learned that it gives him an extra edge when dealing with criminals.

Against a fascinating background of the attempts by British fascists to emulate their German and Italian counterparts, and the ongoing saga of a member of the royal family who wants to marry an American divorcee (plus ça change?) Raven’s problems become deeper and wider as he falls foul of the secretive Special Branch, begins to suspect his wife’s fidelity and then – as if his problems weren’t serious enough – finds himself mired in a a political and criminal conspiracy.

As in every other Chris Nickson novel I have read, the city of Leeds is the central character. Whether it’s Richard Nottingham, Tom Harper, Lottie Armstrong or, now, Urban Raven treading its grand thoroughfares and mean ginnels, Leeds remains gritty, grimy, home to all manner of beauty and bestiality, but always vibrant. There is a wonderful feeling of continuity running through the books; it’s as if each police officer is carrying the baton handed on by a predecessor; Nottingham to Harper, Harper to Raven, Raven to Armstrong. The characters inhabit the same city, though; The Headrow is ever present, as are Briggate and Kirkgate, their suffixes names testifying to their antiquity.

NicksonThe Dead On Leave is very bleak in places. Hope is in short supply among the working people in Leeds, and men have no qualms about building a wooden platform for Moseley to rant from, because a job is a job; consciences are a luxury way beyond the reach of folk whose families have empty bellies. Nickson (right)  is a writer, with social justice at the front of his mind and he wears his heart on his sleeve. I doubt that he and I agree on much in today’s political world, but I can think of no modern British author who writes with such passion and fluency about historical social issues.

Make no mistake, though. The Dead On Leave is not a sermon, and it does not wag a finger in admonition. It is an excellent crime novel, a perfect example of a police-procedural and it ushers on stage another compelling character in Nickson’s Leeds Dramatis Personnae. The book is published by Endeavour Quill and is available now in Kindle and as a paperback.

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THE TIN GOD . . . Between the covers

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“And the guardians and their ladies,
Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
Put pudding on pauper plates.
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
They’ve paid for — with the rates.”

Verse two of the celebrated – and often parodied – ballad poem by the Victorian campaigning journalist George R Sims, In The Workhouse, Christmas Day. Most of us older folk know the poem and its melancholy message. An old man is sitting down to his Christmas dinner in the workhouse, but one memory is too much for him, and he angrily relates the tale of his late wife, who was forced to die of hunger on the streets because of the harshness of the workhouse regulations. The relevance of this to Chris Nickson’s The Tin God lies in the first line of the verse above, because the heroine of the story is the wife of Leeds copper Tom Harper, and she is standing for election to the workhouse Board of Guardians.

So? This Leeds in October 1897, and women simply did not stand for office of any kind, and when Annabelle Harper, along with several colleagues from the fledgling Suffrage movement decide to enter the election, it is a controversial decision, because the concept of women migrating from their proper places, be they the bedroom, the withdrawing room or the kitchen, is anathema to most of the ‘gentlemen’ in Leeds society.

TTG coverOutraged leading articles appear in local newspapers, but someone believes that the sword – or something equally violent – is mightier than the pen, and a homemade bomb destroys a church hall just before Annabelle Harper is due to speak to her supporters. The caretaker is tragically killed by the explosion, and matters go from bad to worse when more bombs are found, and several of the women candidates are threatened.

Superintendent Tom Harper is already involved in investigating the criminal aspects of the case, but when the husband of one of the women is murdered while sitting at his own kitchen table, the affair becomes a hunt for a murderer. The killer leaves a few tantalising clues, and Harper becomes conflicted between devoting every hour that God sends to tracking down the killer – and keeping his wife from becoming the next victim.

Nickson drops us straight onto the streets of his beloved Leeds. We smell the stench of the factories, hear the clatter of iron-shod hooves on the cobbles, curse when the soot from the chimneys blackens the garments on our washing lines and – most tellingly – we feel the pangs of hunger gnawing at the bellies of the impoverished. We have an intriguing sub-plot involving a smuggling gang importing illegal spirits into Leeds, authentic dialogue, matchless historical background and, best of all, a few hours under the spell of one of the best story tellers in modern fiction.

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You want more? Well, it’s there. Nickson is a fine musician and a distinguished music journalist, and he cunningly works into the plot one of the more notable musical names associated with Leeds and West Yorkshire, the folksong collector Frank Kidson (above). The killer shares Kidson’s passion for the old songs – if not his humanity and feelings for his fellow human beings – and he leaves handwritten fragments of English songs at the scenes of his attacks.

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The Tin God is published by Severn House and is available now. It will be obvious that I am a great admirer of Chris Nickson’s writing, and if you click the images below, you can read the reviews for some of his other excellent novels.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017 … Best historical crime novel

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I was delighted that John Lawton’s Friends and Traitors showcased a return for his charismatic copper, Fred Troy, and even more pleased that the beautiful and enigmatic Meret Voytek featured once again, after her ordeals in A Lily of The Field. Norman Russell certainly brought Victorian Oxford to life with An Oxford Scandal, and his consumptive Inspector Antrobus was an intriguing fellow, finishing the novel trying to avoid the sight of his bloodstained handkerchief. In Dangerous Crossing, Rachel Rhys captured beautifully the potent cocktail of snobbery, suspicion and political uncertainty among passengers on an ocean liner on the eve of World War II. In The Well Of The Dead, Clive Allan skilfully wove together two stories, the first being an account of the calamitous events surrounding The Battle of Culloden in 1746, and the second an assured modern police procedural plot.

My winner this year, in spite of the fierce competition, is On Copper Street, by Chris Nickson. I have grown to love the stories featuring Inspector Tom Harper, a brave and determined copper treading the cobblestones of Victorian Leeds. Here, Harper investigates the death of a petty crook, and the horribly modern-sounding attack on two children who have acid thrown at them. Against the background of the lonely and impoverished death of a pioneering political activist, Harper pursues the villains in his usual implacable way, supported at every turn by his admirable – and very bonny – wife. I wrote:

“I would imagine that Nickson is a good old-fashioned socialist, and he pulls no punches when he describes the appalling way in which workers are treated in late Victorian England, and he makes it abundantly clear what he thinks of the chasm between the haves and the have nots. Don’t be put off by this. Nickson doesn’t preach and neither does he bang the table and browbeat. He recognises that the Leeds of 1895 is what it is – loud, smelly, bustling, full of stark contrasts, yet vibrant and fascinating.”

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FREE FROM ALL DANGER … Between the covers

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Chris-Nickson-300x251I have become a huge admirer of the writing of Chris Nickson (left) . He says on his website:

I’ve written since I was a boy growing up in Leeds. It all really began with a three-paragraph school essay telling a tale of bomb disposal when I was 11. Like a lightbulb switching on, it brought the revelation that I enjoyed telling stories. Along the way came  diversions into teenage poetry, and my other great love, music, as both a bassist and then a singer-songwriter-guitarist. At 21, I moved to the US, and spent the next 30 years there, returning to England in 2005, and finally full circle to Leeds.”

I first read – and thoroughly enjoyed – his books featuring Detective Inspector Tom Harper, and relished his recreation of the smoky, noisy and turbulent city of Leeds in the 1890s. Next, for me, came his Leeds during WWII, as seen through the eyes of Womens’ Auxiliary Police Constable Lottie Armstrong. I had not, until now, gone back to the eighteenth century to investigate Nickson’s tales of the town’s Constable, Richard Nottingham. It seems that Nickson had ushered Nottingham into a well-deserved retirement but, rather like the resurrection, by popular demand, of Sherlock Holmes after his apparent demise at the Reichenbach Falls, Nottingham has returned to duty in Free From All Danger.

free-from-all-danger-1You will be pushed to find better opening words to a novel even were you to search all year:

“Sometimes he felt like a ghost in his own life. The past had become his country, so familiar that its lanes and byways were printed on his heart.”

Thus we learn that Richard Nottingham has his best years behind him. With stiffened limbs and diminished vigour he has withdrawn to his home and family – although that family has been diminished by tragedy. When Simon Kirkstall, his successor as town Constable dies, he is persuaded by The Mayor to return to his old job, at least temporarily, while a suitable successor is found.

We are in the year of Our Lord 1736, November, and winter seems to have come early. As Nottingham dusts off his old working clothes he is immediately called into action when a body is pulled from the river. This is no drowning, as the savage slash wounds on the man’s throat testify all too readily. It is as if someone out there in the cobbled lanes, dank ginnels and misty river banks of the rapidly expanding wool town has learned of Nottingham’s return and is determined to challenge him. Murder follows murder, but despite their best efforts neither Nottingham nor his deputy Rob Lister are coming anywhere near to identifying either the assailants or their motives.

As the November 5th celebration approaches, with huge bonfires being assembled across the town, Nottingham is convinced that the killers – who have been identified as a man and his two sons – are going to target a significant victim while the fires blaze and the mill apprentices drink themselves stupid and taunt the forces of law and order.

In Nickson’s writing you will find neither false flourishes nor furbelows. He doesn’t show off, nor does he have time for tricks and verbal trinkets. Bear in mind that he is a songwriter, and you will understand that he knows how to tell a story with the minimum of fuss. Free From All Danger is a straightforward – but impressive –  police procedural, albeit one set in a time when the procedures were based on the wisdom and intuition of the coppers, rather than a two-hundred page manual.

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If you have any appreciation of good storytelling, you will enjoy this book. You will, however, need fingerless gloves, warm socks and a good woollen vest, preferably woven in Yorkshire. This November in Leeds is cold. It is a cold that gnaws at men’s bones, chills their souls, and has them heading for the hearths of home, or the fireside of a crowded inn. The cobbles glint with frost, and the mist from the rivers and becks conceals a multitude of dark deeds. Free From All Danger is historical crime fiction right out of the top drawer. It is published by Severn House, and is available here. Please take the time to read Fully Booked reviews of more Chris Nickson novels. Just click on the images below.

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